As the tournament enters its second round next week, the League will hope for fewer empty seats and fan protests
In 2015, the Football League announced that they would be changing their name—for the first time in their history—to the English Football league, to be commonly abbreviated to “EFL”. Designed to improve the League’s image abroad, hopes were high among administrators that this would lead to new positive publicity for the divisions.
However, while the rebrand itself has been only been met with ambivalence at worst, the accompanying changes to what used to be the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy—the cup competition for Leagues One and Two—have been received with significant animosity.
Fans’ reactions to the addition of Premier league and Championship under-23 sides has drawn substantial amounts of embarrassing coverage. With only 392 fans at Fleetwood’s first round EFL Trophy tie against Blackburn, hopes are not high for the second round of games taking place next week.
The introduction of Premier League B teams or academies to the Football League has been on the cards for some time now. In 2014, a Football Association commission proposed that Premier League teams would be able to have second teams competing in the Football League. Common in Spanish and German divisions, the idea is to give home-grown young players experience in senior leagues and potentially prepare them for the playing in the national side. Spain and Germany having won the last two world cups does lend this argument some extra weight.
However, any plans allowing B teams to play in the Football League have been vehemently opposed, with it being already blocked indefinitely by the league’s clubs. Many EFL teams see it as a power grab by the Premier League, rather than an earnest attempt to improve the chances of young players developing in the English system. Foreign youngsters being allowed for the under-23 sides in the EFL trophy further detracts from the argument that it is for developing the national team.
Also, the fact that the League One and Two clubs must themselves field full strength teams has incensed many, with fines of £5,000 per match being handed out to clubs who deliberately rest too many of their first team players. This prompted Portsmouth—whose fans are leading many of the protests against the competition—to say that they are prepared to pay the fines in order to rest the team for more important games.
The changes were voted through partly due to the Football League Trophy being largely seen as an irrelevance to the sides who played in it. Dwindling attendances and the competition being seen as largely a distraction from the task of being promoted, meant that there was much need for an overhaul. Some clubs were excited for the prospect of playing top premier league clubs, even if they were only to be their Under-23 teams.
Disappointingly for all of those clubs, the invitations were largely snubbed by the top sides. Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City were among clubs to turn down the prospect of playing in the EFL Trophy, and only 10 Premier League teams are playing in the tournament. The invitations had to be extended to Championship clubs in order to make up the numbers, which further added to the negative reception to the changes from the smaller clubs.
This is not to say that it has not been a total failure. Everton’s development squad manager David Unsworth—whose club did take up the invitation to compete—praised the opportunity for his players. He told BBC Sport that “it was really important that we entered this competition, come to places like this [The Macron Stadium] and experience a different kind of football.”
The main problem is that fixing the England team in the long-term is too big an issue to deal with in one action. Former Executive Director of the Football Association David Davies, told BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Reunion’ in April of this year that the problem is that there is too much of a “dysfunctional relationship” between the major football organisations in England. He added that “nobody can tell you what are the agreed priorities of English football”.
What this means is that any small actions to improve the England team, such as the EFL Trophy changes, have the potential to be met with ridicule. Anything short of a wholesale change to the structure or scheduling of English football can be easily dismissed as sweeping difficult decisions or potential conflict under the carpet.
The EFL are planning on expanding from three 24-team divisions to four 20-team divisions in three years’ time—in order to ease fixture congestion, and to improve the England team—and this has already been managed better than the Trophy was this year. On Thursday the EFL announced that they had totally rejected adding B teams to the expanded leagues, the speed and clarity of the decision will be well received around the EFL grounds. The prospect of adding Old Firm clubs was also rejected, again a good move from the league, as not only would this have opened new conflicts with the Scottish Professional Football League, and the Football Association, it would have made further mockery of the “English Football league” rebrand. Shutting these debates down early on—the League’s chiefs will surely hope—will cut down on speculation over the league’s future and any further prospect for protest.
The EFL Trophy is only going into its second round of matches this year, and already has made a lot of unfortunate headlines. The EFL chiefs will be hoping that this will die down as the tournament goes on, and that the rebrand will draw in enough positive interest from foreign media for it to eventually be deemed a success.
Attendances rising above club record lows will be a promising start.